Friday, December 7, 2012

Book Snap: Bart Ehrman's "Forgery and Countgerforgery"

This will be just a brief review (snap) of Bart Ehrman’s Forgery and Counterforgery (hereafter CF), as I am producing a 2 part detailed discussion of claims relevant to NT authorship for the E-Block. For the Ticker, I’ll just offer a few more critical points.

First, Ehrman’s arguments have been beefed up – I do not say “improved” – from the popular version of this book, Forged. In other words, he provides more, but not better. I’ll start with the most important matter: No, he doesn’t do any better addressing Richards’ secretary hypothesis. It still gets the short shrift, and it is still distinctly lacking in any reference to Van den Toorn’s excellent volume on scribal culture in the Hebrew world. In fact, Ehrman spends all of 4 ½ pages out of 500+ on CF on the secretary hypothesis. It’s pretty clear he wants to bury it under the rug as deeply and as quickly as he can.

Not that it helps otherwise. Even the new arguments he unveils are fairly pitiable. To use a prominent example, his treatment of 2 Thessalonians now offers a rather perverse set of arguments that words and phrases found in both 1 and 2 Th prove that the latter is a forgery, since Ehrman can’t imagine Paul being able to remember words and phrases he used in 1 Th and reusing them in 2 Th. Apart from the fact that Ehrman ignores the (named) contributors in both letters as an influence (Silas, Timothy), his argument here shows a remarkable deficiency in terms of the communicative functions of an aural/oral society. By way of illustration, here as some samples from the upcoming E-Block article.


The beginning and ending. Ehrman points out that these are virtually identical in the two epistles. Here is 2 Thes 1:1 as an example: 

Paul, and Silvanus, and Timotheus, unto the church of the Thessalonians in God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ
The two openings, Ehrman says, are "virtually the same". The obvious answer is: Yes, so what? As readers who write to me will attest, for the past several years I have used the same opening ("Howdy") for my emails, and the same closing ("God bless, JP"), with almost no variations. Once in a while, I may use a different greeting if, for example, I think a reader may not be comfortable with an American colloquialism (say, if they are from Africa), or I may switch to "G'day" for Australian readers. In closings, I may add a "thank you" if the person has done me a favor, or say "Take care" at the end if I am writing to a friendly atheist. But 99.5% of my emails start and end the same way. It apparently does not occur to Ehrman that the beginning and ending of a letter is exactly the place where a person is likely to adopt and stick to a certain pattern, especially when writing to the same person or persons. 

Beyond this, Ehrman makes much of the fact that only in these two letters does Paul not identify himself as an "apostle" or "slave," and that only in these letters is the church named as being "of" a place rather than "in" a place. How Ehrman thinks this helps him is hard to say. By his own reckoning, Paul did these things in 1 Thes, so why is forgery a better explanation than there being some circumstance that led the author of both epistles to write this way? If Paul neglects to cite a self-title in one letter, there is no reason he might not neglect to do so in another; the oddity of Ehrman's arguments here would make it so that, if Paul did not perform this sort of self-reference in Galatians, but did so in 2 Thes, Galatians does not lose any Pauline credit, and 2 Thes gains it.

To make the oddityof Ehrman's argument even more clear, by his own reckoning, there is at least a 1 in 6 chance that Paul will fail to perform such a self-reference in any given letter to a church (Philemon is excluded as personal; and Paul calls himself there a "prisoner"). That means that if Paul wrote at least 12 letters, there ought to be at least 2 where he did not perform a self-referent. I doubt if Ehrman will deny that Paul wrote letters to churches that did not make the canon. So, 2 Thes already had a demonstrable 1 in 6 chance of missing a self-referent -- assuming the lack is merely a random phenomenon of Paul's writing, and not because of some contingency associated with writing to or from the Thessalonians in particular. 

In this particular case, a couple of potential contingencies exist. One is that if either Silas or Timothy penned these epistles, then it rather makes sense that Paul would not self-identify as a "slave" or "apostle" -- he's not holding the pen! Another is that Paul's purpose in citing his rank as "slave" or "apostle" is often taken to serve the purpose of affirming his position in Christ where questions may have been raised against it, perhaps because he was a latecomer to the game. In that case, the obvious retort is that the Thessalonians in particular never questioned Paul's honor status -- or else the question had long been settled for them. 

As for the "in/of" distinction, this is too much made of too little. Saying a church is "of" a place is not uncommon. In Revelation 2, the same author (even if Ehrman does not think it is John) varies considerably within seven entries: "angel [of] the Ephesian church," "angel [of] the church [of] Smyrna," "angel [of] the Pergamos church," "angel [of] the in Thyatira church," "angel [of] the in Sardis church," "angel [of] the in Philadelphia church," "angel [of] the church Laodecia.” Is it that a big deal? No! Nor is Paul as uniform in epistles Ehrman finds to be genuine as he implies (here are the rest to churches, leaving out Philemon, and adding a Strong's reference number for some specific words):

Rom: "to all those being in (1722) Rome" (no "church") 

1, 2 Cor: "to [the] church [of] God existing in (1722) Corinth" (strange -- Paul uses the same locational greeting for both; is that a sign of forgery?)

Gal: "to the churches [of] [the -- 3588] Galatia"

Phil: "to all the saints in Christ Jesus being in (1722) Philippi"

In this, Galatians is unique, but is closer to the greetings of 1-2 Thes than the four other epistles Ehrman counts as genuine (1-2 Ths lack "the" -- #3588). 

Why the variance? Does it really matter? No. As it is, we have such a small sample size for Paul's writings (whether we accept just the 7 Ehrman regards as genuine, or all 13) that it is ridiculous to draw any conclusions based on this, especially since a church would obviously be both "in" and "of" a city. Obviously, Paul is able to use the same locational greeting for two epistles to the same city (Corinth). So, Ehrman's argument is merely egregious nitpicking.

Unique Words and Phrases. Next, Ehrman cites a series of phrases unique to 1-2 Thes. I'll note again for the record that this disappears as a problem if Silas or Timothy did the writing, but even allowing for Paul to do so doesn't serve Ehrman's purposes.

Let's first give some examples from those offered by Ehrman:

work of faith (1Thes 1:3, 2 Thes 1:11)
which know not God (1 Thes 4:5, 2 Thes 1:8)
direct (1 Thes 3:11, 2 Thes 3:5)

The answer to all of those Ehrman gives is, quite frankly, "So what!" Even all of Ehrman's examples together result in something of virtually no statistical significance. Moreover, the same routine can be played with 1 and 2 Corinthians, which Ehrman takes as Pauline:

divided (Gk: merizo) (1 Cor 1:13, 7:17, 34; 2 Cor. 13). It is also found in Rom 12:3, but one of Ehrman's examples from Thes is also found in Phil 4:3, so he's clearly allowing himself some leeway.

wisdom Found numerous times in 1 Cor and 2 Cor 1:12. It is found plenty of times in Ephesians and Colossians, but since Ehrman rejects those as non-Pauline, by his own logic, this one must count.

mighty/strong Found a few times in 1 Cor, and in 2 Cor 10:10; otherwise not in the Pauline corpus.

testimony 1 Cor 1:6, 2:1; 2 Cor 2:12 -- also found in 2 Thes and the Pastorals, but since Ehrman does not regard those as genuine, they do not count.

trembling 1 Cor 2:3, 2 Cor 7:15; also found in Ephesians, which does not count, and once in Philippians, which is allowed by Ehrman's method.

That is just the first two chapters of 1 Corinthians, and I selected likely words at random. Now, Ehrman claims there is no such phenomenon as this in 1 and 2 Corinthians, but he overstates his case in summary, claiming there are examples of "sequences of nine, ten or more words" in 1 and 2 Th. The only example he gives of that length comes from the introduction and closings, which, as stated, is a special case; nearly all of his examples consist of one or two words. However, this is very easy to explain even so as it simply proves (tongue in cheek) the person who forged 2 Corinthians was not as skilled as the one who forged 2 Thessalonians.

So, in the end, "So what" is all the answer needed; however, we can take that further by exposing the bankruptcy of Ehrman's methodology with some questions and points.

·  What if these words or phrases, like "work of faith" was simply language adopted or specially used by the Thessalonian church, part of its unique in-group language?

·  How can these usages be deemed significant unless it is shown that these words and phrases ought to have been used in other places in Paul’s writing as well?

·  Ehrman's greatest difficulty, however, is a lack of imagination. He asks if it is "likely that Paul remembered to the very word what he said at times in his earlier letter," including what Ehrman takes to be "off-the-cuff comments and expressions." The answer to that, despite what Ehrman thinks, is that yes, it is very likely Paul (or any author) remembered such things, and this would be the case even if Paul had not made a copy for his own records and reference. As an ancient writer in an aural society, Paul would have carefully crafted his work for aural presentation, such that it amounted to him rehearsing a speech. I myself find that I can remember substantial portions of speeches and talks I have rehearsed, certainly more than sufficiently to recall unique words and phrases.

Ehrman neglects the simple point that in an oral-based society, the function of memory was critical, and it would have been no chore at all for the author (Paul or whoever) to bring to their recollection certain words and phrases from their prior epistle. Indeed, the examples Ehrman gives are in accord with the literary practice of mimesis (e.g., Tacitus using the same word (trunci) in different accounts, once to refer to the trunks of bodies, the other to refer to the trunks of trees). The practice of mimesis required authors to recover -- by memory -- words and phrases from older works and reuse them in new and creative ways. Given that 1 Thes is exceedingly short by any standard, the real question is, how can Ehrman NOT think that Paul could remember such things? It is, actually, because Ehrman erroneously regards the composition as being "off the cuff", which is not an adequate description of the composition of ancient literature.


Other than that, there’s more of the usual: Ehrman once again goes cock of the walk when it comes to alleged problems with eschatology; it’s all an issue preterism would band-aid for him if he could find the first aid kit. We can expect critics to have their usual celebration over CF, but as is the case with so many other works, it's just more of the same wooden thinking by a scholar who still hasn't escaped his fundamentalist past.


  1. Reader: "Well, now that you've said all that, what about a response to the arguments JPH made?"

    Malcious666: "Duh....what?"

    (Deleted for profanity, by the way...when you get an actual argument, see me at TheologyWeb for a thrashing.)

  2. In other words, Mal666 is too chicken to debate. Gotcha.

  3. Good analysis. Sadly Dr. Ehrman is mostly working on increasing his revenues right now. He has lost any academic integrity.